‘Yael Bartana: And Europe Will Be Stunned’ at Petzel Gallery

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(Courtesy Petzel Gallery)

Watching Sławomir Sierakowski walk out of the shadows into Warsaw’s Olympic Stadium, mount a medals platform and exclaim in amplified echo to the weeds growing up through the empty seats, “Żydzi! (“Jews!”), I felt an immediate, hideously vivid anxiety in the pit of my stomach. This anxiety continued as Mr. Sierakowski, wearing a red necktie, a black leather jacket and an expression of concerned attention, went on to invoke his countrymen and all people generally, and it was sustained through the rest of Yael Bartana’s 2007 video Mary Koszmary (Nightmares) and the other two videos of her trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned, and on into the following day. A real activist playing the fictional leader of a semi-fictional group called the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), Mr. Sierakowski wrote his own strange and strangely compelling text, which Ms. Bartana has recorded with unrelenting, Riefenstahl-like beauty. With both utopian sincerity and the sentimental self-pity of a bully imploring his victims to “Come back, all is forgiven,” Mr. Sierakowski appeals to 3.3 million Jews to return to Poland—both for the Poles’ sake and for their own. “With one language,” he says, “we cannot speak. With one religion, we cannot listen … Without you, we cannot even remember.” He is applauded at the end of his speech by a small squad of scouts in red neckerchiefs. As they all walk out together in soft focus, one blond little boy does a brief goose step. The dead constantly poison the living, but this little boy is small enough that he could just be inventing a silly walk of his own, with no idea of its historical resonance.

In the 2009 Mur I Wieza (Wall and Tower), a group of hopeful, sunburnt kibbutzniks build a settlement in Muranów, the neighborhood that housed the Warsaw Ghetto. They raise a red flag bearing the logo of the JRMiP—a Polish eagle superimposed on a Star of David—to the top of their wooden guard tower, and then, behind barbed-wire-topped wooden walls, they begin to learn Polish: “Adamah zeh ziemia,’” their teacher says in Hebrew, “Land is ziemia.” Freedom zeh wolność. Peace zeh pokój.

But what do you do about a fiction people are still dying for? In Ms. Bartana’s 2011 video Zamach (Assassination), Polish critic Anda Rottenberg, Israeli writer and Polish-born survivor Alona Frankel and Israeli journalist Yaron London speak at Mr. Sierakowski’s imagined funeral while a helicopter, in a nod to the opening of La Dolce Vita, lowers a giant bust of Mr. Sierakowski nearby. Ms. Frankel, speaking in Polish, defines herself with a version of Sartre’s deeply equivocal formulation in Anti-Semite and Jew—“I will remain Jewish for so long as the last anti-Semite remains alive”—and asks for the restoration of her stolen Polish citizenship, though she promises never to move back. Mr. London declaims forcefully that “the Jewish Diaspora … ended in Auschwitz,” that the State of Israel and its army are the only guarantees against another Shoah, and that “Yiddish culture is dead, and few of us miss it.” (Never mind Modern Hebrew’s extensive syntactical borrowings from Yiddish, or the repurposed Ukrainian folk song that became the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” an orchestral version of which is played backwards on Zamach’s soundtrack.) And then a restatement, with earnest, youthful purity by two “members of the JRMiP,” of its terrifyingly heart-stirring slogans, and a hymn. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. (Through May 4, 2013)

‘Yael Bartana: And Europe Will Be Stunned’ at Petzel Gallery